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In Defense of Hobbits
A response to Patrick Deneen.
Usually when people call me a hobbit it’s because I’m short and fat and hairy, or because I drink too much, or smoke too much, or because I still throw myself lavish birthday parties well into my hundreds. I’ve never heard it used as an insult before, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.
Over at The Spectator World, my friend Grayson Quay reports on the Restoring a Nation Conference held earlier this month. On October 7, the most important voices on the “illiberal Right”—including Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, Gladden Pappin, Chad Pecknold, R. R. Reno, Matthew Schmitz, and J. D. Vance—gathered at the Franciscan University of Steubenville to rail against secular liberal modernity. And thank God for that!
But the event exposed deep divisions in the movement. As it happens, an illiberal magazine called New Polity held their own event in Steubenville at the exact same time—and offered free tickets to students from Franciscan U. In an email to Mr. Quay, New Polity editor Marc Barnes denied that he was trying to undermine the conference while admitting that the two groups represent very different worldviews. For example, Adrian Vermeule’s vision of a “muscular administrative state” is “the classical definition of tyranny,” said Mr. Barnes.
Vermeule’s pals were not impressed:
Deneen had little patience for this way of thinking. The people behind New Polity are “hobbits” who naively think the fires of Mordor will never reach the Shire, he said, sipping Maker’s Mark after joining his fellow Fighting Irish for an a cappella performance of Notre Dame’s alma mater.
For charity’s sake, I have to assume Professor Deneen hasn’t read Tolkien.
In Lord of the Rings, only five hobbits know that the fires of Mordor are spreading across Middle-Earth: Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. All five of them insist on traveling to the heart of Mordor to destroy the One Ring. (Bilbo isn’t allowed to go because he’s already in the Ring’s thrall.) It’s a suicide mission, but they don’t really mind. The Shire is threatened. They risk life and limb to save their friends, their families, and their homeland.
Really, the hobbits perfectly illustrate Chesterton’s dictum: “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
And they’re the ones who save the day! When the Men of the West make their stand at the Black Gate, they’re just playing for time. They know they can’t destroy Sauron unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring—which, of course, he does.
Once the Ring is destroyed, the Men of the West saw “the power of Mordor was scattering like dust in the wind.” The orcs “slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope.” Some of the Easterlings and Southrons made their final stand, but most of them “fled eastward as they could; and some cast their weapons down and sued for mercy.” The battle was over, the war won.
Granted, it’s not a mic-drop analogy for us hobbits. There’s no piece of magic jewelry we can destroy and bring the Culture War to a sudden, triumphal end. Still, I think it says a lot about the “illiberal Right”—more, perhaps, than Professor Deneen meant it to.
In his own reading of Tolkien (or lack thereof), I’m sure Professor Deneen thinks of himself as a Ranger.
The Rangers are the last of the Dúnedain. They wait for the day when their king will be restored to his throne, reunite the West, and destroy Mordor once and for all. In the meantime, they wander Middle-Earth, waging a guerilla war against the forces of darkness. (“Lonely men are we, Rangers of the wild, hunters—but hunters ever of the servants of the Enemy, for they are found in many places, not in Mordor only.”)
In Lord of the Rings, the Rangers are led by Aragorn: thirty-ninth heir of Isildur, the last King of the West-Men. But Aragorn keeps his identity a secret, for fear of being killed by the servants of Sauron like his father before him. So, the hobbits know him only as Strider, a dubious figure who lives in the wilds near the Shire. But, as he explains to Frodo, that’s exactly how Aragorn wants it:
Travelers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. “Strider” I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.
Aragorn would never use “hobbit” as a slur. He loves the hobbits. He loves their innocence, their mirth. He loves their second breakfasts and their pipe-weed. He endures the rain and the frost so they can live in their cozy hobbit-holes.
He defends Shire because he’s a good Man. He preserves the hobbits’ home—“the quiet of the world.” And when that home is threatened, they rise up to defend it. They make fine soldiers, because they love what’s behind them.
The Rangers aren’t looking to mobilize the whole of Middle-Earth in a great struggle against the enemy. That’s what makes them so noble—and so wise. Had he pressed them into fighting, Mordor would have conquered across Middle-Earth. But because Aragorn lets the hobbits live in peace, they destroy his Enemy and restore him to his throne.
That’s the beauty of these novels. Strider understands the true value of “simple folk”—and so, in the end, his service to the Shire is repaid a hundredfold.
Really, if Professor Deneen sounds like anyone from Lord of the Rings, it’s Saruman.
Remember his speech to Gandalf:
As the Power [Sauron] grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.
What we may forget is that, at least in the beginning, Saruman truly desired the good. He wasn’t a servant of Mordor—at least, not a willing servant. He hated Sauron. His intention was always to betray the Dark Lord.
But he also believed the free people of Middle-Earth were incapable of defending themselves, much less ruling themselves. That’s why he calls upon his fellow Wise (wizards) to consolidate power before it was too late.
What he failed to understand is that “means” are as important as “designs.” At some point, they become indistinguishable. It’s not enough for the peoples of Middle Earth to be knowledgeable and orderly. They must also be free.
Why? Again, the answer is love. Patriots, like hobbits, make good soldiers. Slaves, like orcs, do not.
I’m not sure “illiberal Right” quite understands that. They’re prone to what I call the Franco fallacy. By trying to force Catholicism on the Spanish people, Francisco Franco created resentment against the Church and hastened its decline in Spain. As a rule, when the government becomes more religious, public religiosity declines. (The phenomenon is now playing out in Islamic theocracies like Turkey and Iran.)
The same thing happens even if people think they want a theocracy. If their hearts remain unconverted, they’ll get sick of public religion pretty quickly. That’s what happened in Renaissance Florence under Savonarola.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a paean to “freedom of religion” or any of that nonsense. God is no respecter of persons, and neither am I. No: this is about psychology. Laws are good at reinforcing a moral consensus. That’s why the theocratic monarchies of the Middle Ages survived for a thousand years. But when you try to use state power to build a religious consensus, it tends to backfire. In the modern world, such regimes have a zero percent success rate.
This is what George MacDonald meant when he said, “No good will be done against the will of the people.” I think it’s also what Sartre meant by his quip, “Man is condemned to be free.” Freedom isn’t just an abstract good: it’s an integral part of the human condition.
But freedom is a good, too. It’s certainly better to be a freeman than a slave. It’s better to choose the good than to have the good forced upon you. And I’m not sure the “illiberal Right” really understands that, either.
Marc Barnes of New Polity calls Adrian Vermeule a tyrant because he supports things like a federal COVID vaccine mandates and the Vatican’s deal with the Communist Party of China. I don’t get the sense that Professor Vermeule even prefers freedom. He’s either totally indifferent to human liberty or actively opposed to it. Christians therefore have every right to be (at least!) suspicious of his Schmittian integralism.
Now, the fact that Professor Deneen defends Professor Vermeule is one thing. The fact that he would simply dismiss Mr. Barnes’s concern out of hand is quite another. It suggests that Deneen, too, is either indifferent or hostile to freedom. This is a radical departure from his earlier works like Conserving America? and even Why Liberalism Failed.
It’s also a radical departure from the Christian political tradition. (“For there is this difference between good and bad rulers,” wrote St. Ambrose: “that the good love freedom, the bad slavery.”) And it bears nothing in common with the thought of G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and—yes—J. R. R. Tolkien.
Ironically, Saruman was corrupted because he was too conscious of the “fires of Mordor” spreading through Middle-Earth. He spent too long gazing into the palantír, watching Sauron’s power grow and his dominion flourish.
“Alas for Saruman!” cries Gandalf. “It was his downfall, as I now perceive.” At first, the Orthanc-stone “could do nothing but see small images of things far off and days remote. Very useful, no doubt, that was to Saruman; yet it seems that he was not content. Further and further abroad he gazed, until he cast his gaze upon Barad-dûr. Then he was caught!”
Clearly, Saruman hadn’t read St. James’s warning to remain “unspotted from the world.” This is why he let his thoughts dwell so long, and so often, on the darkness gathering over Mordor.
(He would have been very happy in 2022. His palantír only communicated with six others. Your iPhone is connected to millions, and they’re an endless supply of dread. I suspect the illiberals spend too much time on his Seeing-stone)
It’s also why Saruman grows to hate hobbits. For Tolkien, the halflings represent this “unspottedness.” They have no worldly ambition. They have no desire to give or take orders. They live for their families, their friends, their simple pleasures. They love peace and quiet. As the dying Thorin says to Bilbo in The Hobbit, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
Despite what Saruman (and Professor Deneen) might think, this merry world isn’t defenseless. Far from it. In a pinch, five out of five of those cheerful little creatures will become citizen-soldiers. They’ll fight to the death to protect their folk and their folkways.
But don’t take my word for it. It’s all there in the text.
And if Professor Deneen happens to read this, I hope he’ll give the books a try. At nine hundred pages it can seem a little daunting, but it’s such a good read you tear through it in a week. Who knows? It might change his mind about a few things.
At the very least, a little time away from his palantír would do him some good.